With a Face like That --

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Everything you think you know about great portraits is wrong.

No one has ever been better at capturing celebrities than British painter Thomas Lawrence. His pictures of the giants of the Napoleonic era--the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo, George IV of England, Tsar Alexander I--capture the "fire in the eye," as was said in his day, or reveal "his subject's inner life," in the terms of a survey of his work now at the Yale Center for British Art.

Take Lawrence's portrait (at right) of the abolitionist William Wilberforce. It isn't finished, but two eyes in a face are enough to convey a life racked with pain (Wilberforce suffered from skeletal degeneration) but one that was also marked by a fine cause.

Or could my notes be confused? Surely that unfinished portrait could only be the Duke of Wellington himself. Who else could look as steely as flint but with the private "softness" a friend saw in Lawrence's portrait of him? Or perhaps this is Lawrence's famous portrait of Sir Francis Baring, who funded the Napoleonic wars. Has there ever been a better image of financial ferocity?

By now I will have made my point: the bromide about great portraits is that they capture "inner lives." It turns out, however, that you need to have decided beforehand what kind of life has been captured, to be sure of the interiority you're witnessing.

Mona Lisa herself has been variously described as straightforwardly cheerful (in her own era), as brimming with femme-fatale lust (in the vixen-obsessed 19th century), and as cryptic and opaque (the 20th-century view). …